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Resolve to make a difference in your community

So, you made it through Christmas. With any luck, you endured only minimal wear and tear and did not spend the rest of 1998:

(a) returning clothes that didn't fit;

(b) returning toys that broke when you tried to assemble them;

(c) obtaining a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to properly dispose of that toxic fruitcake Great Aunt Alice mailed you.

Now, 1998 is in your rearview mirror and you are barreling headlong into the new year. It traditionally is the time folks reflect on what they might want to change about their lives during the coming year. We will drop bad habits, start new, good ones, set goals and make a slew of promises to ourselves as we anticipate a more productive and happier 1999.

On the other hand, maybe you're one of those people who is wholly satisfied with his or her life and sees little room for improvement. If so, maybe you can stop inflating your ego long enough to consider a few suggestions about how you can make yourself and your community a better place to live.

If this begins to sound preachy, that's because it is. It may be the best way to get people motivated to make our corner of the world a better place to live.

The first step is to take back our government by making the people we elect and appoint understand that they are, in fact, servants of the public. But that is easy to say and difficult to accomplish . . . unless you're willing to invest a little of your time and energy.

If you are ready to do more than complain to your spouse or your dog about taxes, politics and bureaucrats, then choose one or all of the following and make it your New Year's resolution. And, even if your motivation is not to become a better citizen, enjoy the vicarious pleasure of knowing it will make the politicians really nervous.

During 1999, resolve to attend at least one meeting of each governmental entity that taxes you: the County Commission, the School Board and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Find out ahead of time what's on the agenda for the meeting you will attend and try to familiarize yourself with the issue before you go.

If you're really ambitious, take a day trip to Tallahassee and watch the Legislature in action. If you have children, this can be an educational experience as well.

Invite a few friends over to your home for coffee or cocktails with the expressed purpose of talking about your concerns for the quality of life in the county. Identify three issues and send them in a letter to all your elected officials. Warn them you will be following up throughout the year to see what progress has been made.

Schedule a face-to-face meeting with the county commissioner and School Board member from your district. (If you don't know your district, call the Supervisor of Elections Office and ask them to tell you.) Once you make the appointment, compile a list of questions. No question is too basic, and you would be surprised how many elected officials are just as clueless as you about why things are done the way they are.

Note: If you already know what you want to discuss with your elected official, feel free to share that subject with the secretary or receptionist who schedules the appointments. However, if you don't know or don't wish to tell the receptionist, do not allow that person to intimidate you by saying you must provide more information. You have a right to direct access to your public servants; "I pay taxes" is sufficient justification to meet with them.

If you are a member of a club or a fraternal, religious or civic organization, persuade your membership to periodically invite elected representatives to speak to your group. You can decide the subject or you can let them. Insist they be available for a question-and-answer period afterward.

This may sound self-serving, but the intent is sincere. Read the newspapers, watch the television news or listen to the radio to keep up with what's going on in your government. Familiarize yourself with the people and issues. Don't give in to the temptation to gloss over stories about budget allocations or funding. The stories may be dry reading, but they are important and are your most accessible and dependable means of staying abreast of how your money is being spent.

Do you know people who are not registered to vote? If so, do your best to motivate them to become involved. Offer to drive them or help them fill out the necessary paperwork. If they already are registered but didn't vote in the last election, convince them of how important it is and how precious that right is in our democracy. This is especially crucial for younger people.

Finally, if you turn over a new leaf by becoming an active participant in your government, you have every right to yell and scream when things don't go your way. But if you choose to remain detached and uncommitted, you deserve the admonishments of those who actually care, because you have chosen to be a victim of government.

_ Jeff Webb is editor of editorials for the Citrus and Hernando editions of the Times.

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